Historical and Contemporary Use of Term ‘Race’

Aug 3, 2018 in Research

The original basis of all sciences is comparison. People from all over the world differ from each other, and in order to realise the distinction amidst them there is a need for comparison. The hair, skin, body shape, and face alter within the world’s population. These differences form another differences, for instance, in language, behavior, or attitude. These distinctions form the notion of ‘race’.

The accurate genesis of the word ‘race’ is unrevealed; however, it seems to have its origin in a Latin root ratio that means “species” or “kind”. 500 years ago the term ‘race’ was periodically used in English to nominate groups of people indicated by their common origins or features. In the next 200 years, the term was progressively used in English with the meanings similar to “group”, “people”, “nation”, etc. This common meaning of the term ‘race’ is a bit outdated nowadays (Yudell 2006).

Race is an erroneous systematisation of people which is not relied on real or accurate biological or empirical truth. Moreover, race has a political explanation which was based on people’s ideology and imagination. It is something that does not have any natural development; however, it does have a political purpose. In other words, the idea of race was created for dividing people in order to give power to white people and to validate the prevalence of white people over non-white race-ethnic groups (Smith 1992).

At the inception of the 21st century, the notion of race, which is the idea that people all over the world can be classified into biologically distinguished groups, which have their own social, physical and mental features, is comprehended by most scholars as an unreliable concept. Undoubtedly, the scientists completely changed their mind about race nowadays, especially when compared to the times of Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Right Movement was characterized as a time when black people were considered as slaves and genetic inferiority, however, now, they are just people with different skin colour. These changes concerning race treatment and consideration involve culture, science, geography, politics and economics (Smith 1992).

To realise the difference between usage of term ‘race’ earlier and now it is vital to plunge into the history and retrace the attitude towards this term. Race and its beliefs about the human distinctions were caused by the context of African slavery. However, a lot of people within the history have been enfettered without the idea of racial ideology. Looking back at the colonial America of the 17th century before the ratification of laws validating slavery only for Africans and their progeny, numerous details become comprehensible:

  • The first people who were enfettered and put on the plantations by the English were the Irish with whom they used to have friendly relationships starting from the 13th century;
  • The English offered to enslave the poor in England and in the colonies to oblige them to work everlastingly;
  •  A majority of the slaves on English plantations in Jamaica and Barbados were Indians and Irish;
  • A lot of scientists assumed that African slaves and some contracted white slaves were treated in the same way (Smedley 1997).

Throughout the period since Thomas Jefferson had mentioned in the Declaration of Independence “that all people in this world are equal”, American nation was competing with the dissension amidst this Jeffersonian opinion and the truth of the American understanding. Jefferson was an author of several American concepts about race and science. In 1787, in his work named Notes on the state of Virginia, Jefferson expressed that the distinctions amidst the races were arranged in nature and that black people were a separate race. The conflict amidst the Declaration and Notes can be understood only from Jefferson’s viewpoint of humanity. If blacks were an independent creation and marked out from the meaning of “all people”, then, in this case the equality declared in the Declaration would not correspond to all.

Regardless of Jefferson’s notable opinion on this problem, Americans and their European partners did their best to distinguish the nature of human difference. Frank Snowden, an American scientist, historian and professor, was scrutinizing the black-white issue before the sixth century A.D. He concluded that despite the fact that there was a group of blackness with bad omens, devil, demons and sin, there was no conventional image of Ethiopians as the representation of demons or evil in still existing records (Yudell 2006).

In ancient Greece and Rome considerable separations amidst people were recognized as being amidst the civil and the uncivilized, amidst the political inhabitants and those apart from politics, however, not between genealogy or skin colour. The human disparity in blood or in kinship became a new approach of classifying people. This idea obtained success within the end of the Middle Ages when anti-Jewish concerns, which were established in an antagonism toward Jewish religious faith, started to develop into anti-Semitism. Those blood kinship faiths explained anti-Jewish enmity as an alternative to the enmity of people. For instance, Spanish Jews or Marranos who had been baptized were considered as a danger to Christianity since they could not determine the purity of blood to the Inquisition. In full swing of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, these concepts were used to clarify the variety of mankind, partially ruled by the knowledge of people during the colonial investigation, the necessity to explain the inferiority of some people because of slavery, and the progress of a new science to evaluate and describe the variety in all species (Yudell 2006).

Notwithstanding the term ‘race’ prevailed before the 18th century, mainly to depict domesticated animals, it was brought into the realm of science by a French scientist Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon in 1749. He observed separated distinctions amidst the human races which were triggered by changing climate. His climatologic theory of racial difference was inspired by the idea of European superiority. From his point of view, the usual state of humanity was originated in the European society. In other words, Buffon stated that Europeans were the people who created the most handsome and beautiful men and women and they symbolised the actual colour of humankind (Lewontin 2006).

Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist and naturalist, also played an inevitable role in the concept of race. He was the creator of the “natural system” that became the ground for the systematisation of all people. He separated humankind into four classes: Americanus, Europeaeus, Asiaticus, and Africanus. Moreover, he imputed some behavioral, physical and typological featured to those classes. For instance, Americanus were characterized as reddish, irritable, vivacious, with dark hair, wide nostrils, stubborn, cheerful, independent and mostly ruled by customs. Asiaticus were distinguished as frigid, obscure, gloomy, with dark hair, dark eyes, harsh, arrogant, greedy and ruled by opinions. Africanus were taken as impassive, insidious, idle, and careless, with black skin, black hair, flat nose, swollen lips, shameless women who are mostly ruled by fancy. Europeaeus were characterized as generous, resourceful, optimistic, and vigorous, with blue eyes, white skin and ruled by laws (Lewontin 2006).

Within the end of the 18th century, Johann Blumenbach, a German scholar, built a racial classification based on the Linnaeus‘s work; however, it contained five racial categories: Mongolian, Ethiopian, Caucasian, Malay, and American. He considered that Mongolian and Ethiopian categories were on one side and the Malay and American ones on the other. Caucasian, from his perspective, was perceived as an ideal race (Lewontin 2006).

At the dawn of the 19th century, American scholars played a very crucial role in the racial science. Samuel Morton, George Gliddon and Josiah Nott developed numerous clarifications of the origin of white racial superiority, such as the origin of physical and mental differences amidst races, the usual place of racial classes in the American society, and also the option for citizenship of non-whites. Morton, Gliddon and Nott were the publishers of the popular work, named American School of Anthropology, which was well-known because of the theory of polygeny and the idea that the gradation of human races used to have distinct creations. The best option of demonstrating this theory was the Morton’s investigations on cranial ability and mental capacity. He accumulated a lot of crania from all over the world, assessed their size, volume and came to the conclusion that Mongolian and Caucasian races had the biggest cranial ability and, as a consequence, the smallest level of mental capacity. Africans instead had the smallest cranial ability, however, the biggest mental capacity. This work was a ground for many scientists for more than a century. After Morton’s death, the prominent biologist Stephen Jay Gould used Morton’s materials and methods for his investigation; however, he was unable to reproduce the first findings. He assumed that Morton’s personal concepts about race distinction affected his methods and results that further led to the elimination of inconsistent data (Hocutt 2002).

As for the concepts of race of the early 20th century, one can say that clarifications of racial distinction built on significant and visible physical characteristics such as cranial ability and skin colour made a huge contribution to a completely new way of realising the subject. Race started to be understood as the image of invisible distinctions that the scholars ascribed to the recently found elements of heredity, also known as genes. The genetic scrutiny of race was an idea that racial dissimilarity in appearance and complex social manners can be comprehended as genetic dissimilarity amidst racial classes (MacEachern 2008).

The first two decades was the time when some geneticists thought they were the founders of eugenics. In accordance with Francis Galton, eugenics was supposed to give preference to the more appropriate races over the less appropriate. This could be obtained by means of two methods. The first one is called positive eugenics when particular classes were fostered to breed with one another. The second method was named negative eugenics where specific classes or individuals can be sterilised (USA) in order to prevent reproduction, or can be forced to perform acts of genocide (Nazi Germany). Under the mask of biological experiments, eugenic racial science brought various results:

  • it became an influential ideological power in Nazi Germany;
  • it had an impact on the formation of eugenic sterilisation laws in the USA (over 30,000 cases);
    • it encouraged a racial enmity in the USA in early 20th century;
    • it became a scientific support for the racial ideology in the USA in 20th century (MacEachern 2008).

For the first three decades of the 20th century a lot of geneticists and those who were involved in eugenics irresistibly promoted the idea that human races were distinguished according to the mental and physical features. American scientists, who studied eugenics, devoted substantial resources to the research of black-white distinctions and tried to utilise those ideas within the public sphere. Prominent and respectful geneticists concluded that the only possible result of miscegenation can be unhappiness, and it should not be performed under any social conditions. Charles Davenport, a Harvard biologist and the head of the eugenics movement in America, in his fundamental work on race and mental capacity assumed that there is a structural, hereditary and genetic ground for the disparity amidst the black and white races.

Moreover, Paul Popenoe and Roswell Hill Johnson, eugenics researchers, in their persuasive test Applied Eugenics concluded that the Afro-American race is completely dissimilar to the white race, mentally, as well as physically. Moreover, when looking from the point of view of modern civilisation and its development, the researchers were confident that the Negro race was lower in status than the white race. The distinction in attitude and psychological reaction also existed and was considered to be more vital than the mental capacity (MacEachern 2008).

Eugenic supporters gave race an invariable stability. In other words it meant that neither education, nor environmental or climatic changes, not extermination of racism could make changes to the destiny of non-whites. In the USA, the influence of eugenics over the issues of human distinction was very noticeable. For instance, Walter Plecker, a supporter of eugenics, assisted in promoting anti-miscegenation Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in Virginia.

African-American scholars were famous among those who reacted to the increasing group of the scientific racist thinkers. In 1909, Kelly Miller, the Dean of the Howard University, disputed about the scientific racism. His point of view was that starting from the time when civilisation is not a trait of the colour of skin, or hair, there is no need for altering such physical characteristics. The most influential evaluator of the idea of biological race was W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the creators of the NAACP and the editor of the magazine “The Crisis”. He was first who had distinguished anthropologic literature that insisted on the fact that race was not a functional scientific class, and demonstrated, instead, that biological race was socially built. For instance, Du Bois claimed that race was unproductive tool, since humankind intermingled with each other that further led to impossibility of making a boundary amidst black, white and other races (Hirschman 2004).

Starting from the 1930s, numerous anthropologists and geneticists changed their point of view moving away from eugenic classification of human distinction to evolutionary biology. That method contradicted with eugenic definition of invariable genetic differences, and instead presented human race as an active population discerned by variants of the prevalence of genes amidst populations. With inculcation of the notion of race in genetic development, it appeared to be more complicated to dispute with the fact that one race or another had a specific features. Moreover, those five racial classes, distinguished in the 18th and 19th centuries, began to vary according to the genes and features scrutinised by genetics.

Theodosious Dobzhnsky, a prominent biologist whose works had a notable impact on the other scientists’ mind concerning race, assumed that the quantity of human races is changeable because of the choice of features to be scrutinised. That new method was created with the help of new findings in genetics which showed that genetic alteration was more common within the species. Furthermore, the modifications within the idea of race were caused by an increasing number of scholars who were more progressive on the issues of race than their forerunners. From the 1930s to the 1950s, works by such biologists as Leslie Dunn, Theodosious Dobzhansky, Ruth Benedict, Ashley Montagu, Ralph Bunche and Jacques Barzun propagated the idea that race was not unchangeable (Hirschman 2004).

Nowadays the modern perception of the term ‘race’ differs from the historical one. This term is very crucial in nowadays society, since people can be easily recognised as beings, for instance, Asian, Scandinavian, Black, etc. Basically, the term ‘race’ is an attempt to be precise about some general beliefs, such as:

  • most human beings are divided into a restricted number of specific classes or races (Hispanic, Black, White, American, Asian);
  • representatives of each class have notable resemblance to each other;
  • mixed race – is the class of people that is formed out of people who do not belong to any of the previously mentioned race;
  • there are distinct differences amidst each of the race, such as physical characteristics, mental abilities, etc;
  • these differences are innate and one cannot alter them (Omi, Winant 1990).

Howard Winant is a contemporary American sociologist and race scientist. He is prominent for his collaboration with Michael Omi and their work “Racial Formation in the United States”. Their theory is based on the fact that race was formed in the USA as a means of arranging people in community. That is why they are trying to organise it with the help of special tactics which they call racial projects. In his work “The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race”, Howard Winant distinguishes several various theories of race, banishes those ideas he contradicts with and, as a result, creates his own theories. Here are several crucial theories that Winant mentions but does not accept:

  • Race is an ideological construct. This concept is vigorously followed by Barbara Fields, an American historian. She explains this concept as a notion of “false consciousness”. Fields assumes that the concept of race is spread as a means of explaining slavery to the community or that it was created in order to meet an ideological purpose. She is confident that race is not genetic; however, it is discovered and realised with time. Moreover, Fields is also convinced that the only reason why the term ‘race’ still exists is that the society itself keeps creating and following it. Notwithstanding, Howard Winant considers her theory “extreme” and thinks that it can be only responsible for the cause of race in social circumstances. Additionally, he claims that Field’s theory is unsuccessful, since it does not identify how race creates social organisations and originality.
  • Race is an objective condition. This theory embodies race originality and significance. Several scholars followed this theory, for example, William Julius Wilson, Milton Gordon and Daniel Moynihan. The sense of the theory is based on the fact that race is not that flexible as it is historically determined. These theorists contradict the biological development of race and assume that racial classes are created because of social and political events. This theory does not permit a lot of space for alteration and partly forms racial conventional images in which representatives of particular races have to determine and conduct within the given race. Opposite to their findings, Winant presumes that this theory forces people to label themselves as one of five skin colour categories: white, black, yellow, brown and red. Winant denies this theory by explaining that “no one actually fits in these boxes; moreover, a lot of people do not belong anywhere”. 
  • Critical race theory. Winant’s theory identifies the method that history has created the concept of race along with the social establishment of originality. Winant also points out that people nowadays live in the world in which they imitate racial familiarity and which gives a possibility to momentarily identify with somebody’s culture.

Howard Winant concludes that the concept of race altered over time as well as the world globalised over time. The conception of race is still altering. Winant wants to believe that the term ‘race’ will not have anything to do with the person’s identity or any kind of distinction amidst people (Omi, Winant 1990).

Nowadays, there exists a problem with classifying people into races, because some of the human populations are very different to each other. However, it does not mean that all people around the world are the same. Indeed, if to compare human to chimpanzee, 7, 5 % of two chimps’ nucleotide bases differs, while there are only 0, 3 % in human. However, people are very homogeneous species compared to animals. The first and the most pivotal reason of such a similarity amidst different races if that all people around the world have the same ancestor, which is Homo sapiens (MacEachern 2008).

Tiger Woods developed his own racial originality, Cablinasian, which includes Indian, Black and Asian ancestry. Such a self-governing power over this racial originality was encouraged by the USA Census that permitted multiracial people to categorise themselves in the appropriate way. In contrast with the previous Census, in the 2000 Census, multiracial people could describe their all racial attributes. Because it was a kind of a new occurrence for US multiracial people, for several decades the population in the Hawaiian Islands has constantly used various multiple racial tags to determine themselves (MacEachern 2008).

Yzerbyt was trying to give an explanation to the existence of stereotypes. He assumed that they do not only produce a number of features to describe a group, however, also a reason for sustaining those features. In other words, it helps people to consolidate approaching information in accordance with their distinct viewpoints.

The concept of race itself is always developing. Arguments concerning whether race is a socially built or a biologically based concept are continuous in different fields, including anthropology, history, psychology, and sociology. However, these arguments have just now attained the majority of the audience by means of the limited forms of media, such as Public Broadcasting System (PBC).

Contemporary theorists have scrutinised that people can include numerous indicators for evaluating their own or somebody’s race. They can utilise genetic or cultural background, language, or physical appearance. For instance, being an indicator for evaluating race, the genetic background is mostly used in the science. It can help to determine the racial genomes and prevalence of various diseases. Physical appearance is considered as the most widespread and appropriate form of evaluating the race. Despite the fact that appearance is pliable, (meaning that people can easily alter their hair style and colour or skin colour), it is still utilised as a form of individuality arrangement. Nowadays, anthropologists still utilise colour diagrams and photos to discern people’s racial background. Moreover, they recently started to employ DNA profiling to discover more about progenitors. Cultural and social background is proved to be an inevitable part of race identification. Investigations have demonstrated that hanging on the ethnic structure of the environment, the majority of mixed individuals will adjust to the fact that racial originality is the most congruous with their surroundings (MacEachern 2008).

These various theories, concerning formation of individuality, completely differ from those common theories about racial individuality in monoracials. In his folk onthology, Hirschfeld believes race to be unchangeable and hereditary. In accordance with the authors, the idea of race is a result of inborn cognitive abilities that assist people in organising the world into separate and intelligible classes. In particular, Hirschfeld assumes that essentialist intelligence ascribes an essence to different classes of people. This ability of mind assists people of various age categories in forming functional and reasonable classes. Some essences are the same within different humans, and those who are involved in the similar essences are joined together in order to create a racial group. This kind of grouping can be valuable in foreseeing future conduct or interplay (Hirschman 2004).

In the last 35 years a great alteration occurred in the biological apprehension of the idea of human ‘race’, mostly as a result of massive grow in the understanding of human genetics. Being rather biological than social construction, race started to avoid being involved in basic reality describing the human species. Despite this fact, there occurred several statements that the racial classes embodied not random socially and historically fixed groups, however, objective biological classes based on genetic variations. The latest reminder of such a statement is the work of Armand Marie Leroi, published in the New York Times, which demonstrates classical uncertainty concerning the reality of racial classes as well as faulty judgments about the validity of such a racial establishment for medical practice (Lewontin 2006).

There are four specific factors concerning human difference, which is under the complete agreement. The first one explains that human species themselves have a huge genetic disparity from person to person. For instance, if to take two completely different people, they will be different one from another by approximately 3 million DNA forms. The second factor demonstrates a great number of differences, namely 85 %, amidst people within local national or linguistic populations, such as French, Japanese, and Kikuyu. There is a diversification from community to community in how much genetic difference each includes. These differences mostly depend on the immigration into the community from a range of other groups. The third factor pertains to some genetic features, such as hair colour, skin colour, nose shape, hair structure, blood type and other characteristics that differ together so that communities with very dark skin colour will also have dark curled hair and broad noses. The last, but not the least factor concerning the genetic variations amidst classes is that these variations are about to collapse due to a large number of immigrants (Lewontin 2006).

All in all, race remains a very disputable issue. It was created in order to divide people into different classes, which tend to give preference to one class over another. Throughout the centuries this term was spoiling human lives, however, it needs to be kept in mind that race is a social scheme that will always affect people lives, but now a biological reality.

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